Putting on a solo exhibition

Putting on a solo exhibition

Nicola Henley studied Fine Art Textiles at Goldsmith’s college, London in 1984. After receiving a British Craft Council ‘Setting Up’ grant she worked as a Textile Artist in Bristol until moving to Ireland in 1991.

She has exhibited and lectured widely in the UK, Ireland, Scotland, the USA, Australia, Japan and Spain and has also worked on private and corporate commissions since 1985.

Her work is represented in many public collections including The British Crafts Council, Cunard Cruise Line, Embroiders Guild UK, British Rail, Kyoto Museum of Modern Art, Gallery Pousse, Tokyo, Microsoft Ireland, XL Group HQ Dublin and numerous private collections.

She was recently awarded first prize in her category at The RDS National Crafts Awards in Dublin and ‘The Michael Smith O’Brien Perpetual Challenge Cup’ 2015.

In this article, which is part of the Business of Art series, Nicola discusses preparing her Shorelines exhibition at the Timeless Textiles Gallery on the other side of the world. We learn about the challenges she faced and how her antipodean audience reacted.

Poster for Shorelines exhibition

Poster for Shorelines exhibition

How it came about

Nicola Henley: In 2012 I had to opportunity of visiting Australia to see relatives and friends in Sydney, but before I went I decided to use this as a chance for a research mission for my work. It was important for me as an artist in mid-career to develop new areas and broaden my horizons and audience.

For over 25 years since taking my degree in Textile Art at Goldsmiths College, London, I had worked as a professional Textile Artist, exhibiting and selling work through galleries in the UK, Ireland and abroad and working to commission whenever the occasion arose.

I had been fortunate that the galleries I was involved with had, on the whole, contacted me either individually or through the Craft Councils of the UK and Ireland but I had not really taken the bull by the horns and approached galleries directly myself, especially in another country where I had not built my reputation.

For that reason, it felt quite daunting, but taking the attitude that I had nothing to loose, I started to do some research via the Internet, before the trip commenced.

Interior room 1 Timeless Textiles

Interior room 1 Timeless Textiles

Movers and shakers

I was delighted when Anne Kempton, who runs Timeless Textiles, Newcastle, NSW followed up my emails with an invitation to Skype and from this, to meet! Many of the galleries I had made enquiries with by email, said that they only showed Australian work but they were all very encouraging and at least they had replied.

I slowly realised by trawling the Internet that there is a great Textiles network in Australia, with a huge enthusiasm for the medium, and that the Australian can do attitude was prevalent and was very encouraging.

A key mover and shaker in the field was the hugely colourful Janet De Boer who ran TAFTA (but is now retired) which stands for The Australian Forum for Textile Arts. She also produces the e-zine Textile Forum, which can be subscribed to. It’s well worth looking at to see what’s going on Down Under.

So I set up a meeting with Anne for the week of my arrival in Sydney, to coincide with an opening at the gallery. It was a great opportunity to meet other textile artists and enthusiasts, and through Anne’s generosity, I was introduced to a number of key people involved in the profession and also teaching in the field.

Anne suggested an exhibition with her at the gallery the following year and, in the meantime, I left a couple of pieces with her to test the waters. It couldn’t have been more encouraging as these sold fairly quickly and I went away knowing I had a year to prepare work for a solo show in 2013.

Interior room 2 Timeless Textiles

Interior room 2 Timeless Textiles

The theme

I was initially unsure how the Australian audience would respond to my work, which feels essentially very European and particularly Irish inspired. This troubled me a little but in the end it seemed important to be true to myself and make work which was a response to my own environment, not to try and adapt it somehow to what might be more typical of Australian work which in general had seemed from my trip to be more colourful, bolder, louder than my own work.

I think this paid off as the show went well and I was able to give some workshops in Newcastle where the gallery is and also at Grampians Textures in Victoria. I made contact with Australian National University, Canberra textiles department and Sydney School of Art textiles department well before my visit to set up a couple of lectures and workshops. All these events helped to fund the trip and broadened my experience and enjoyment of the time in Australia.

Interior room 1 Timeless Textiles

Interior room 2 Timeless Textiles


I was concerned about the shipping of work and costs involved, but in the end, Anne had a visitor to the UK who was able to bring back some of my work, and the rest was rolled up and carried out by myself in a large suitcase. I decided to leave all the mounting until I was there and allowed an extra week at the beginning of the trip for this.

I had to apply for a short-term work visa from the Australian Embassy which I did online and it cost about €167. I had to have written evidence of work contracts with the gallery and Grampians and proof of a return ticket.

There was a very comprehensive contract between the gallery and myself, which detailed all the legal and practical considerations.

For example:

  • There is a fee of  $500: $300 for the use of the West Gallery, and $200 for the use of the East Gallery at Timeless Textiles.
  • The works included in the Exhibition, the Gallery will act as the Artist’s sole agent from the opening of the Exhibition until two (2) months after the final date of the Exhibition.
  • This will also cover any third party commissions (an agreement between the Artist, the Gallery and a third party to make a specific Work for the third party) arising from the Exhibition during the above period.’
  • The Gallery commission is 40% of the Sales Price.

Pros and cons

The advertising and publicity were completely handled by the gallery, who have a large mailing list and following, and so was the opening. However, there was an agreed gallery charge for the exhibition space and the workshops space, which had to come out of my fee for teaching.

Anne also worked hard to get radio interviews and local press on board so that my show would get plenty of coverage. Without this I wouldn’t have known where to begin, and as is always the case with private galleries the commission reflected the commitment and work the gallery owner had to put into this.

This turned out to be my first exhibition in 2013 and it sold well, since then I have had another solo show in 2015, and I will be there again in February 2017 with a new body of work.

As well as showing large-scale wall hung pieces I also framed some smaller textile pieces and some pastel drawings and in 2015 some small embroidered French linen prints. Both the smaller and large works sold, and the unsold work has remained with the gallery since then and Anne has continued to promote my work. This is partly because I have to pay import duty to customs here to actually receive my own work back!

Once I asked for a piece to be sent back to me in Ireland and I had a courier delivery man awaiting €80 cash because of its value which was stated on the delivery form, so I learnt my lesson.

The overall experience has been very good for me as sales are very slow in Ireland because there are a small population and very small buying public and as well as this, textiles as an art form is not very established here.

As well as this I have few UK outlets, as many main organisations that show textiles such as the Crafts Council and Contemporary Applied Arts will not show artists who work outside of the UK, even if they are trained there and were born UK citizens.

In fact, I would be very glad to hear of any galleries that do not keep hold this restriction!

For more information visit: www.nicolahenley.com

Got something to say about your own solo exhibition experiences – please share by leaving a comment below.

Thursday 01st, June 2023 / 05:24

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4 comments on “Putting on a solo exhibition”

  1. As Nicola says the textile world in Australia and New Zealand is quite strong and definitely full of amazing artists. I am a New Zealander by birth but lived in the UK for most of my adult life. I returned to live in NZ for 5 years from 2008-2013. I had one exhbition at NorthArt on the North Shore in Aukcland the first year there. It was well received but no sales. The worst winter weather for ages made each weekend a washout. I then lived in Marlborough for 4 years and had my studio open on the Marlborough Art Trail. I sold small items. I did however enter many national and localised Art Competitions and came second in several General Art Shows and Quilt Shows. with quilted wall hangings.
    In that time I made many new pieces inspired by NZ for the quilt competitions in the UK.
    Last year I had a solo exhbition of this work called: ‘Aotearoa – Sea, Sun, Sky’ at Hastings Arts Forum in St Leonards on Sea, East Sussex. I was a member of the Forum. My work is based on deep emotional responses to the nature and earth forces which underlie New Zealand’s astonishing beauty and variety of landscapes. Although they were made at different times, for different reasons the whole exhibition hung together as a unified whole. representing the physical and spiritual re-connection I had made with my home land. It included 4 quilted coats made for the Festival of Quilts
    Once again my work was very well received with comments ranging from; ‘Absolutely beautiful’, ‘Inspirational’, ‘Stunning’ to ‘Really beautiful, imaginative and fascinating collection. Somehow made me feel calm and contemplative.’
    I did not however sell anything other than cards. It cost me a lot of money I could not afford and left me downheartened for quite sometime. It may have been the wrong venue, time of year, type of work but it did have a very positive, uplifting effect on people. If only I could llive on that.
    Most of the work has been displayed on my stands at the Festival of Quilts and the Knitting and Stitching Shows and the West Country Quilt Show in Bristol. It always draws gasps, compliments, joy and admiration. But no sales.
    Had I the money or some sort of financial backing I would do it again with new work. I was not put off but still hope for that elusive chance of sharing with the world my gifts. And that is what art is about. Not just making money although that would help considerably.
    It was wonderful to see it all hung and talk with the public and inpsire others. As one man wrote: ‘Great work. Lovely lady’ as I took the time to talk to him and explain the real story behind each piece.

  2. Ann Holmes says:

    We need a ‘ national’ group to arrange exhibition space, venue, etc.for first time exhibitors. To keep up standards the pieces could be submitted for selection by experienced artists.

  3. Viv Young says:

    I well remember Nicola preparing to take her first exhibition to Japan, as I helped to type all her exhibition notes! At that time I was not an embroiderer myself, but reading her notes inspired me to investigate the craft more closely, and I found myself signing up to a 4 year City and Guilds Creative Embroidery course with the excellent tutor Mary Youles. I could never have imagined how wonderfully thrilling and rewarding the last 22 years have been for me in the textile world, all inspired originally by Nicola!

  4. LaVel Rude says:

    How do I frame or display my stitching and textile works?
    Is it ok to put them in a shadow box frame without glass? Or is it ok to matt and frame my stitched wool and linen pieces behind glass or plexiglass?
    LaVel Rude

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